Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at a Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving to mark ANZAC Day

25 April 2011 at 9:00 am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Yesterday, after six weeks of solemn penance during the Lenten fast, Westminster Abbey rang again with the sound of the Easter song Alleluia as we celebrated the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. On Good Friday, we remembered the death of Jesus on the Cross, the ultimate sacrifice of self-giving love. Yesterday, Easter Day, we celebrated the new life of the risen Jesus Christ, the vindication of that sacrifice, the guarantee that the triumph of generous service and self-giving love is the secret at the heart of the world, the touchstone for all that is true and good.

This celebration sets the tone, as we assemble again to commemorate the generous self-giving of the ANZACs at Gallipoli in 1916. We also bear in mind today the recent natural disasters with the loss of life, homes and livelihoods in New Zealand and Australia. We welcome to the Abbey the choir and orchestra of Perth Modern School as they celebrate this year the centenary of their school. We also welcome the orchestra of Linwood College Christchurch, whose visit to Europe was at risk, and many of whom suffered personally directly or indirectly from the effects of the earthquake. We wish them every blessing over the next term and as they return to their own school buildings from August. We extend a particular welcome to the Prime Minister of New Zealand, the Right Honourable John Key, and thank him for his message at the earthquake memorial service here in March. In my address then, I recalled how Australian rescue teams had presented the people of Christchurch with a wooden cross and bench fashioned from material salvaged from Christ Church Cathedral. I said: ‘Everywhere the empty cross is a symbol of the triumph of life over death.’

Death always looks like the end, the final conqueror. The death of Jesus looked, to the Temple authorities, to the Roman governor, even to his own disciples, like the final whimper of a once-significant itinerant preacher. During his ministry, the Temple authorities had seen Jesus as a threat. They had challenged him at every turn. Now they had won. Death had won. He was finished. His disciples had run away in fear for their lives; a spent force they would slink back to their homes in Galilee. Jerusalem could get back to normal. The Temple authorities were wrong. The impact of the disciples is visible here two thousand years later. Something changed them from craven fools to fearless champions. The birth of the Church and the spread of Christianity is the result of their change of heart. No longer afraid, the disciples put their own lives on the line. Only an extraordinary event can explain this change of heart: the resurrection of Jesus, his rising to new life and empowering his disciples. He laid down his life for those he loved. His new life celebrates the triumph of life over death.

This Easter event at the heart of history is reflected in so many ways. New life arises from death. Amazing goodness and generosity can be seen to overcome the most evil and distressing circumstances. As we look back today to the events at Gallipoli in 1916 in which almost 3,000 New Zealanders and 9,000 Australians lost their lives, we cannot fail to recoil at the horror, the pain and the devastation. But we must also be aware of good things that resulted: the Australians and New Zealanders who took part in those fateful landings left behind them a legacy of national self-consciousness, confidence and friendship. And the old enmity between the British allies and the Turkish people has given way to genuine mutual regard and collaboration. The Turkish flag was offered this morning at the altar.

We are conscious of other more recent triumphs. I quote the Principal of Linwood College: ‘as so many people have been touched by the tragic events of 22nd March and continue to grapple with the aftershocks, uncertainty and personal loss and damage, I have been fortunate to witness the steel courage, calm determination and generous community spirit, wondrous acts to see in our darkest hour.’ In my address at the earthquake memorial service here last month, I asked ‘Can Christchurch and Canterbury recover from the disaster? Can the city rise again? It will never forget - but it can and will rise.’ I went on to quote the example of Napier in North Island, rebuilt after the devastating earthquake of 1931. ‘I visited an exhibition [there] and saw photographs of the ruined city and heard first-hand accounts of the experience of the earthquake itself and its aftermath. 256 people lost their lives. The tales of bravery and heroism I heard then have found their echo in Christchurch 80 years later.’ These tales of bravery and heroism are equally to be found in the story of the disasters in Australia. None of this minimises the tragedy of the suffering and loss. None of it wipes away the tears and the personal agony. Death is real. But it is not the final conqueror. Generous life, a life for others, is no sign of weakness, no mark of defeat. Life conquers death.

The death of those men at Anzac Cove was not in vain. ‘Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ [John 15: 13] The triumph of generous service and self-giving love is the secret at the heart of the world, the touchstone for all that is true and good.